On Decolonizing the Structures of Gender and Sexuality in the Philippines
Katherine Anne del Rosario, University of the Philippines Diliman
The women in my family rarely talk about romantic relationships, sex, or consent, and this frustrates me endlessly.
As a Filipino woman born in a conservative, third-world, Southeast Asian country, sex used to be intimidating and confusing to me. This is a common problem among young Filipinas. Few adolescent Filipino girls feel they can learn about sex from parents and family (Rimban, 2020). The Philippines has very rigid ideas of gender and sex; these systems, I have come to learn, are rooted in colonial oppression and hegemonic ideological influence.
Some say that the very existence of a binary division among sexes is not naturally and universally occurring, as evidenced by the phenomena of asexual reproduction and hermaphroditism. Simone de Beauvoir (1949) argues that differentiation between sexes is not necessary to the enduring of a species and is merely coincidental.
Meanwhile, the second-wave feminists of the seventies suggest that sex is biological while gender, as a result of sex, is sociocultural (Fausto-Sterling, 2000). However, this idea lends a sort of validity to the perpetuation of gender inequality on the grounds of biological difference. One may argue that our perceived differences between the sexes are not purely physiological in nature. Fausto-Sterling (2000) suggests that our perceived biological and sexual dimorphisms inherently correspond to cultural views on masculinity and femininity. For instance: if a transgender woman who had undergone sex reassignment surgery were to compete in the women’s bracket of the Olympics, some might say that she was placed in the wrong category. However, is physical prowess a reliable measure of sex? Not always, because the strengths of men and women–especially Olympian athletes–can overlap.
Lugones (2016) describes this “patriarchal organization of relations” (p. 2) as a feature of a colonial gender system–one informed by Eurocentered colonial powers. Colonization has altered the indigenous sense of self, as well as earlier understandings of gender relations. This new colonial conceptualization became a weapon for patriarchal domination and designation of two opposing hierarchical categories.
In the Philippines, gender roles are traditionally tied to heterosexuality. Although women are viewed as having a vital role in the family, expectations of dependence and deference to men persist. Furthermore, for men to go against masculine stereotypes would be evidence of homosexuality and, therefore, sexual deviance (Valledor-Lukey, 2012). However, precolonial Philippines painted a much different picture. Women, like men, were given leadership positions and opportunities to earn significant income. Effeminate men (babaylan) held positions of authority as religious leaders and community doctors (Garcia & Neil, 2008; Lewis, 2014; Stanley, 1990).
Upon the arrival of the Spanish, the submissive, domestic, cisgender girl became the image of the ideal woman (Torralba-Titgemeyer, 1997). Brewer (2004) attributes this to the transition from animistic religions to Catholicism in the Philippines, wherein gender roles were transformed to launch an entire colonial enterprise. Resistance to Spanish culture was commonly led and instigated by Filipino women and babaylan and continued for over a century after the arrival of the Spanish in 1521. Thus, the denigration of female status and authority was necessary for the establishment of the Catholic church, whose teachings emphasized clerical celibacy and the repression of female sexuality and power.
As a result of the hierarchical nature of gender, there is an inherent coloniality also involved in the act of sex. Manalastas (2011) argues that sexual pleasure is imbued with meanings within social, cultural, and historical contexts; this implies that what may be considered pleasurable in one culture may not be so in another. Additionally, the processes of sexual pleasure are organized by gender, as Filipino men and women are hierarchically positioned in terms of access and power in sexuality. Filipino women are afforded less access to the pleasures of their own bodies; furthermore, it is seen as inappropriate for them to act as agentic sexual subjects–to talk or ask about sex (Manalastas, 2011).
These colonial ideas of gender and sexuality have resulted in the miseducation of many Filipinas, myself included. There is a natural struggle to position myself within these structures, as they reflect values that feel oppressive and outright unnatural to me. To better understand the nation’s unfettered consciousness of gender and sex and to potentially liberate Filipinos, especially women and LGBTQI+, from the repressive nature of these colonial structures, Filipino scholars in the social sciences must pursue more studies oriented towards Sikolohiyang Pilipino (Filipino Psychology).
Sikolohiyang Pilipino was developed to indigenize the study of psychology in the Philippines (Enriquez, 1975; Pe-Pua & Protacio-Marcelino, 2000; Yacat, 2013). Notable among Sikolohiyang Pilipino studies on gender is a Filipino Gender Trait Inventory developed by Valledor-Lukey (2012), which revealed that a particularly Filipino characteristic for masculinity is having an affinity with others (pakikipagkapwa). In Filipino culture, pakikipagkapwa or fostering a sense of community with others is seen as the root of humanism. Additionally, women were seen to be especially intuitive and sensitive to environmental and social cues (maramdamin) compared to men.
Meanwhile, an exploration of the Filipino experience of orgasms (Manalastas, 2011) showed that women tended to first experience orgasm later in life (mid-teens to twenties) than men did (7 to 12 years old); furthermore, women generally orgasmed in the context of interaction with partners rather than through personal exploration. Although many reported feeling pleasure, some reported feelings of confusion and shame. These feelings of guilt stem from centuries of repression from colonial and neocolonial powers.
Viewing my Filipina-ness through a decolonized lens has helped me shed these negative attitudes towards sex and desire and has empowered me to reclaim authority and autonomy over my body, my sexuality, and my femininity; consequently, I have begun seeing my ethnic features–my flat nose, my dark eyes, my textured hair–as beautiful. Furthermore, adopting a decolonized view of gender and sexuality allows me, in my own little ways and in my own little bubble, to break the cycles of misogyny and sexism attached to gender roles and societal and institutional expectations. As I depart from colonial gender roles and realize the gravity of change that Filipinas have influenced throughout history, I gain a clearer understanding of my identity, my roots, my potential, and my purpose–as a woman and as a Filipino.